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Angler's Journal: A Tooth for a Tooth

July 29, 2008

By King Montgomery

“Man, I’m glad those things don’t grow to 6 feet,” said my friend Mac, as he removed the Lefty’s Deceiver from the toothy “snake” with needlenose pliers and released it back to its watery tree. “If they did,” he continued, “I’d have to reconsider swimming here.”

He had caught a “water wolf” -- the barracuda of freshwater fish.


Pike and pickerel -- also known as snakes, jackfish or jackpike -- belong to the family Esocidae, and their modern lineage dates back almost 60 million years to the Paleocene Epoch. The family includes the muskellunge, the northern pike, the chain pickerel and the “little” pickerels (redfin and grass pickerels).

Pike are known as “water wolves,” and the name is also appropriate for its pickerel cousin. The chain pickerel is the fish most often encountered by anglers east of the Allegheny Mountains. Named for the chain link-like markings along their sides, pickerel are found in many ponds, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and large warm streams. The larger Northern pike prefers a little colder water and is prevalent in the North and West of the United States, including Alaska.

Marylander Lefty Kreh with a 22-pound Canadian Northern Pike. Our local pickerel run a lot smaller, but still are ugly. And fun to catch.
(Lefty Kreh)

Pickerel and pike are sleek, streamlined, toothy fish, built for rapid bursts of speed to grab other fish; once gripped by the sharp teeth of the pickerel, prey have little chance of escape. It is this aggressiveness and a seemingly insatiable appetite that makes these fish a worthy gamefish on light tackle.

The fish are solitary ambushers that become piscivorous at an early age. Once hooked, they are good for a few strong runs before they give in to the pressure of the rod. But be careful because once they see the boat or a net, they are good for at least one more spirited dash, and thrash around rather than be netted or lifted. Non-selective in what they eat, they will attack just about any fly or lure presented on the top of the water, on the bottom, and everywhere in between.


In the late fall, during the winter months, and in the cool weeks of early spring, I often use a wire or heavy monofilament bite tippet, up to about a 40-pound test, regardless of what I’m fishing for. Pike and pickerel spawn in the late winter. I do not usually target the Ecocides, except in the late fall, winter, and into spring, but when they are on the prowl, the wire or heavy monofilament leader will save flies and my disposition.

Recently, I have been using TYGer Leader and leader/tippet material from the American Wire Company. These nylon-coated stainless steel leader wires can be tied like monofilament. These products will probably make many other wire tippet products obsolete, and monofilament as a bite tippet is almost passé. The wire does not seem to spook bass, crappie or other sunfishes. It also works well on walleyes, and the toothier species of saltwater fish such as bluefish and barracuda.


These fish live in many of the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay throughout the region and thrive in brackish waters as well. Check with your local fly shop or tackle store for more information about where to go for these fun fish. Also check the internet, you’ll find that anglers of all stripes are all over the place giving away their secret places and surefire lures or flies.

Pike and chain pickerel, like many predators, are creatures of cover and edges. They station near grasslines, under solitary aquatic plants, along sunken logs and behind rocks -- all points from which to ambush prey that cruise by. And don’t overlook boat docks and bridge pilings; the artificial structure provides excellent pike/pickerel lies.

The edges of spatterdock and lily pad fields, along points or indentations in hydrilla or milfoil patches, in water adjacent to tules and other reeds, in the branches of a fallen tree or next to a tree stump, are classic lies for the ever-hungry fish. Locations like these are also prime spots for black bass and other gamefish. Often, when the bass are not biting in these likely lairs, the pike or pickerel are; and they can save what might otherwise have been a slow day of fishing.

Both pike and pickerel are tasty fish, so keep enough for dinner for the family. There are good recipes on the internet, but I just take a saw and cut 1-1 1/2 inch steaks from behind the gills to near the tail and either grill or bake them. Marinate them in Italian salad dressing for a little added flavor. Don’t overcook them or they get mushy.

Some folks think of pike and pickerel as trash fishes. But despite their slimy skins, these toothy predators demand respect and are a necessary link in an aquatic environment. Moreover, they are fun to catch, particularly in the colder months when everything else has slowed its pace. And until we as a species have been around 60 million years with such success, perhaps we shouldn’t be too judgmental.

Our fishing editor reminds readers not to lip land these nasty fish or they could be minus a digit or two. King is hosting a bonefishing trip to Grand Bahama Island Nov. 9-14, 2008. Go to or email him at for more information.

Issue 3.31: July 31, 2008